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Culture Q&A

Charles Murray

American abyss

The country, says author Charles Murray, has big problems regardless of who wins the presidential election

American abyss

Charles Murray (Javier Rojas/Prensa Internacional/Zuma Press/Newscom )

American Enterprise Institute scholar Charles Murray writes books that create intellectual tsunamis, from Losing Ground in 1984 (which eviscerated the U.S. welfare system) to Real Education four years ago (which proposed alternatives to bachelor’s degrees; see “College crush,” Feb. 14, 2009). This year’s Murray blockbuster argues that the United States is Coming Apart.

Ernest Hemingway said F. Scott Fitzgerald once told him, “The rich are different from you and me.” Hemingway said he responded, “Yes, they have more money.” Do you say they also have a different culture? In the old days the people who ran corporations or were in politics overwhelmingly grew up in farm homes or in homes where their fathers were factory workers or ran small stores or the rest of it. When they came to power they got more money than other people, but their culture was the same. Now the elites are different in kind. It’s not just that they have more money. They have a separate culture.

When did that change begin? In the 1960s America’s colleges started to get really efficient at finding the best talent everywhere in the country. In an elite neighborhood in 1960, about three-quarters of the couples in that neighborhood would have no college degrees, or only one. In the majority of couples, one was socialized through high school and only one was socialized through college, and probably not one of the elite colleges. Jump to 2010 and it’s different. Everyone in those elite neighborhoods is socialized through college in general, and elite colleges in particular. 

How are the two cultures different? Members of the new upper class these days get married in their late 20s or beyond, and don’t have kids until later. They read different books—in reading books at all they are apart from a great deal of the rest of the country. A lot of American popular culture is transmitted through TV, but if the elite have one at all they use it to watch DVDs of movies, or Downton Abbey, or Mad Men

Are evangelicals divided in that way? My sense is that evangelicals don’t have many of the problems I’m talking about—and I’m not saying that because I’m in front of a Patrick Henry College audience. There are, in being a devout evangelical, all sorts of things that will lead you to be engaged with people of all classes. Caring for the less fortunate is a fundamental tenet of Christian morality. People who are imbued with that are going to spend a lot of time, effort, and money, and personal attention trying to deal with the human problems around them. 

In general, though, we don’t know how the other half lives? If you grew up in the upper middle class in an affluent neighborhood, you are especially isolated from that world. You really don’t have a good idea of what it’s like to be the son or daughter of a truck driver.

Marriage is one of the key divides? Fifty years ago we were pretty much one nation across classes and the classic example of that is marriage. Divorce in the upper middle class has been going down since the 1980s, so those in the upper middle class are increasingly on their first marriage. Meanwhile, among 30- to 49-year-olds in the white working class, we’re down to 48 percent married. 

That has big implications. Single dads don’t really coach Little League teams very often. Single moms don’t have much time to go to PTA meetings. The community functions very differently, and the whole culture starts to collapse and change. We now have two cultures.

How many people see that as a problem? What’s scary to me is that a lot of upper-class members now are perfectly happy thinking of themselves as being in an upper class. A senior executive at a major New York ad agency lived in a modest house in 1960. Americans denied they were in the upper class, or in the lower class: We all wanted to be middle class. Now some people really don’t see why they should want to associate with Americans who aren’t as rich and well-educated as they are. They’re very happy being members of the upper class—that scares me.

Which comes first, the decline in church involvement or the decline in marriage? I can’t give you a simple answer. The fact of getting married often concentrates people’s attention on spiritual and religious matters—but religious belief is a big prompter for getting married. A loss of religiosity will be associated with lower marriage rates. It’s a feedback loop.

Sociologist Peter Berger’s most famous comment is that India is the most religious country in the world, Sweden the least, and America is a land of Indians ruled by Swedes. Have you flipped that? In part. When you go to the Harvard faculty the percentage of people who profess religion goes way, way down: very low religiosity at the very top. But in the upper middle class, while religiosity has declined, it hasn’t declined as much as it has in the white working class. The bottom has fallen out of religious observance in the white working class. This collapse of religiosity has profound implications for how working-class communities work: It’s a kind of growing social disorganization that goes to the heart of what in the past made America exceptionally vibrant in community life.

Why has the decline occurred? You had Darwin and evolution. Then you had Freud and the discovery of the unconscious. … It’s not that the intellectuals read Thomas Aquinas and said, “No, he’s wrong.” They basically said, “The Sunday school stories we grew up with are obviously wrong, and therefore there is nothing worthy in Christianity.”

You have provided the sociological equivalent of what theologian Francis Schaeffer talked about: living off the interest. Biblical belief leads to positive social developments, but you can’t keep living off the interest. At some point you’ve got to replenish the capital. We haven’t replenished the capital, and it also has all sorts of implications. We do not know whether a secular society can remain a virtuous society, because we’ve never had in the history of civilizations a society as secular as Western Europe is now. 

And in America? The Founders said emphatically that the Constitution they had created would not work for any but a religious and moral people. They saw religion as the foundation for morality, so the key requirement for the American experiment was self-government. I don’t mean self-government in terms of governmental institutions. I mean government of the self, by the self—and religion is the basis for that to happen. Insofar as that has declined, you have a classic case of living off the interest.


Watch Marvin Olasky's complete interview with Charles Murray:

See also "Charles Murray and God," "Charles Murray and education," and "Charles Murray, Miss America, and the heartland."


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  • Richard H's picture
    Richard H
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 06:47 pm

    When you go to the Harvard faculty the percentage of people who profess religion goes way, way down: very low religiosity at the very top.The statement above is very misleading.  Every human is highly religious as every human has a worldview which is nothing more than a system of beliefs.  The true difference found at Harvard, for instance, is that the religion for the majority of the faculty is a combination of Marxism and Humanism.  Unfortunately, the majority of our educated elite are Marxist/Humanist that produce the leaders of likemindedness in all our social instittutions.